Something Wild in Deschutes Brewery

Yesterday, Deschutes posted a most interesting explanatory note on their blog:
We have detected in our lab a similar condition to The Abyss 2009 where some (not all) of the bottles have brettanomyces in them. It is interesting in that there seems no way to tell short of general tendencies in storage conditions where the brett will develop to sensory detection levels.
This is a fascinating situation. A huge percentage of breweries have now moved toward barrel-aging programs, and Deschutes' experience may be the tip of a big, sour iceberg. Wood is a fantastic material for aging beer. Casks breathe, and they contribute tannins and, if they have recently been used for wine or liquor, flavor and aroma from those substances. But porous wooden barrels are also, of course, a marvelous habitat for wild things. Yeasts and bacteria inhabit the cracks between staves and even the tiny fissures in the wood itself. This is exactly the reason American breweries abandoned them in the first place (despite claims of "beechwood aging"). Stainless steel, properly cleaned, harbors no foreign creatures.

I haven't done a proper study of this phenomenon, but my sense is that first-generation wooden barrels are mostly pretty sterile. These are the juicy casks that contribute so much wine or bourbon character to beers. But left for further cycles of aging beer, they become susceptible to contamination. Ron Gansberg discovered a rogue barrel that had turned from among his collection (to his eminent, brett-hating credit, he released that beer for the brett fans before removing the barrel to a secure destruction site). Lompoc had a pinot barrel go sour and it made the single best pour I've ever had from the brewery. And now Deschutes has some funk running wild.

This will be a challenge to breweries who want control over their beer. Mirror Mirror and the Abyss were conceived as high-gravity beers that would age gracefully and allow the notes to commingle over time. The kiss of brett will take these beers in totally unpredictable directions. Personally, I love the idea of soured Mirror Mirror and Abyss. Neither of these is among my favorite Deschutes beer, but soured versions? They would instantly be hugely attractive.

Historically, all beer was aged in wood. The old ales and strong ales meant for aging would all have been infected. This was where the historical distinction between "mild" beer and aged beer ("old," "stale," "stock," etc.) came from. Mild meant sweet and fresh. Older beer had that dry, sherry-like finish of infected beer.

Deschutes' solution is to pasteurize bottles the wood-aged portion [see comment from Gary Fish below] of the beer in Abyss and Mirror Mirror after they exit the barrels. (They'll also arrange for shipment and refunds of returned bottles of soured versions, too. Or, you could give them to me. You know, either way.) I guess that's a good solution for keeping the beers as Larry Sidor and his team envisioned. But there are lots of possibilities here. Deschutes could release unpasteurized bottles in small lots to folks who hope for the tang of brett. Or they could actively encourage their brett populations and produce traditionally soured old ales. Old British breweries commonly blended their lots to produce different versions of beer. Publicans would mix old and mild beers at the bar. Possibilities abound.

It's a brave new world, and breweries with barrel houses are about to discover that they have sour programs under way--whether they intended them or not.